Chadwick Boseman's Stirring 2020 Is on Track to Make Oscar History
His performances in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Da 5 Bloods” are powerful enough to make him a strong contender for not one but two posthumous nominations
Only eight actors in history have been nominated for Oscars posthumously. Only 12 actors have been nominated twice in the same year. Chadwick Boseman, sadly, could make history this Oscar season by winding up on both of those lists.
The actor, who died in August of this year after a battle with colon cancer that he hadn’t publicly disclosed, has been considered a solid Best Supporting Actor contender for months for his role in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.” And with initial press screenings of George C. Wolfe’s Broadway adaptation “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” taking place this week, Boseman makes a formidable case for Best Actor attention as well.
The role he plays in “Ma Rainey,” a volatile trumpet player named Levee, led to a 1985 Tony Award nomination for Charles S. Dutton in the Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play. That category is the Tonys’ version of the Best Supporting Actor category, but Netflix is campaigning for Boseman in the lead actor category for “Ma Rainey,” and the supporting category for “Da 5 Bloods.”
Despite the way the Tonys classified the role, the Oscar campaign does not feel like category fraud. The film adaptation of August Wilson’s play, with a screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, makes Levee more central to the action. While you could argue that it’s an ensemble piece and Boseman could be considered a supporting actor along with the rest of the actors who play blues icon Ma Rainey’s band, he comes across as a lead every bit as much as Viola Davis does in the title role.
Partly, that’s because the trims that were made to Wilson’s original play only serve to make Levee more prominent. Partly, it’s because of the way Broadway veteran Wolfe films the action: When the bandleader, Cutler (Colman Domingo), has a key monologue in the middle of the film, we hear much of it while the camera is fixed on Levee’s face, as he listens from a hallway outside the room.
And partly, it’s because Boseman himself is so commanding in the part. Full reviews are embargoed until Nov. 20 — but as a 1927 jazzman who embraces a newer, livelier sound and thinks of Ma Rainey’s blues standards as outdated, he is a cocky, manic presence at first, and a more complex and tortured one as the film goes on. In a way, Levee has a bigger emotional journey than Davis’ Ma Rainey, who is a richly demanding and unforgiving force of nature from start to finish.
While Boseman’s performance wouldn’t have needed sentiment to get on voters’ radar, the actor looks thin and feral in a way that fits the wired and jittery character but becomes more poignant when you realize his cancer was likely responsible for at least some of the look.
It’s a stylized, theatrical film, and Boseman embraces Wolfe’s approach to the material. The performance should be enough to put him near the top of the roster of Best Actor contenders, with Anthony Hopkins in “The Father,” Gary Oldman in “Mank” and Delroy Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods.”
Speaking of that last film, Boseman is also in the thick of the Best Supporting Actor race for a much smaller performance. The story is set in the present day, as four Black veterans return to Vietnam to look for the remains of their squad leader and the treasure they buried 50 years earlier. Boseman plays the squad leader and only appears in flashbacks, but his scenes are crucial ones, and he makes enough of an impact to definitely be in play when voting begins next year.
During his lifetime, Boseman’s only mainstream Hollywood honor was the Screen Actors Guild Awards’ ensemble award for “Black Panther.” But any kind of recognition by the Academy would be historic, in a variety of ways.
To date, 62 posthumous nominees have received a total of 79 nominations, and they’ve won 16 times. Only eight of those nominations have been in acting categories, with James Dean, Jeanne Eagels, Peter Finch, Heath Ledger, Ralph Richardson, Spencer Tracy and Massimo Troisi all nominated after their deaths (Dean twice), and Ledger and Finch winning.
Ten people have received two or more posthumous nominations in the same year; the only actor on that list is Troisi, but just one of his two nominations was for acting. (The other was for writing “Il Postino.”) James Dean received two posthumous acting nominations, but they came in separate years, for 1955’s “East of Eden” and 1956’s “Giant.”
And while it’s common for people to receive multiple nominations in the same year, it’s very rare for actors to do so. Academy rules specify that a person cannot be nominated twice in the same acting category, so the 12 times it has happened have all involved one nomination for Best Actor or Best Actress, and another for Best Supporting Actor or Best Supporting Actress.
Fay Bainter was the first to do it, for “White Banners” and “Jezebel” in 1938; Scarlett Johansson was the most recent, for “Marriage Story” and “Jojo Rabbit” last year. Barry Fitzgerald was the oddest case, because both of his nominations were for the same performance, in 1944’s “Going My Way.” (The Academy subsequently changed the rules so that even if an actor gets enough votes to warrant a nomination in both categories, it only counts in the category in which he or she receives the most votes.)
So if Boseman is nominated for either “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” or “Da 5 Bloods,” he’ll be only the ninth actor to be honored after his death. If he’s nominated twice posthumously, he’ll join only James Dean in that category and become the first to do it in a single year.
And at this moment in a strange Oscar year, Boseman seems very likely to make history.
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